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Facts About Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS)

How Is It Treated?

In mild cases of RLS, some people find that activities such as taking a hot bath, massaging the legs, using a heating pad or ice pack, exercising, and eliminating caffeine help alleviate symptoms. In more severe cases, medications are prescribed to control symptoms. Unfortunately, no one drug is effective for everyone with RLS. Individuals respond differently to medications based on the severity of symptoms, other medical conditions, and other medications being taken. A medication that is initially found to be effective may lose its effectiveness with nightly use; thus, it may be necessary to alternate between different categories of medication in order to keep symptoms under control.

Although many different drugs may help RLS, those most commonly used are found in the following three categories:

  • Benzodiazepines are central nervous system depressants that do not fully suppress RLS sensations or leg movements, but allow patients to obtain more sleep despite these problems. Some drugs in this group may result in daytime drowsiness. Benzodiazepines should not be used by people with sleep apnea.
  • Dopaminergic agents are drugs used to treat Parkinson's disease and are also effective for many people with RLS and PLMS. These medications have been shown to reduce RLS symptoms and nighttime leg movements.
  • Opioids are pain-killing and relaxing drugs that can suppress RLS and PLMS in some people. These medications can sometimes help people with severe, unrelenting symptoms.

Although there is some potential for benzodiazepines and opioids to become habit forming, this usually does not occur with the dosages given to most RLS patients.

A nondrug approach called transcutaneous electric nerve stimulation may improve symptoms in some RLS sufferers who also have PLMS. The electrical stimulation is applied to an area of the legs or feet, usually before bedtime, for 15 to 30 minutes. This approach has been shown to be helpful in reducing nighttime leg jerking.

Due to recent advances, doctors today have a variety of means for treating RLS. However, no perfect treatment exists and there is much more to be learned about the treatments that currently seem to be successful.

Where Can I Get More Information?

For additional information on sleep and sleep disorders, contact the following offices of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health:

National Center on Sleep Disorders Research (NCSDR)
The NCSDR supports research, scientist training, dissemination of health information, and other activities on sleep and sleep disorders. The NCSDR also coordinates sleep research activities with other Federal agencies and with public and nonprofit organizations.

National Center on Sleep Disorders Research
Two Rockledge Centre Suite 7024
6701 Rockledge Drive, MSC 7920
Bethesda, MD 20892-7920
(301) 435-0199 (301) 480-3451 (fax)

National Heart, Lung, And Blood Institute Information Center
The Information Center acquires, analyzes, promotes, maintains, and disseminates programmatic and educational information related to sleep and sleep disorders. Write for a list of available publications or to order additional copies of this fact sheet.

NHLBI Information Center
P.O. Box 30105 Bethesda, MD 20824-0105
(301) 251-1222 (301) 251-1223 (fax)

To learn more about RLS, contact the Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation, Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping the public, patients, families, and physicians better understand RLS. The Foundation can be reached by mail at 514 Daniels Street, Box 314, Raleigh, NC 27605-1317, or on the World Wide Web at


WebMD Public Information from the U.S. National Institutes of Health

Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on April 01, 2002

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